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December 6, 2011

Prospectus Hit and Run

Ministry of Marlin Mayhem

by Jay Jaffe

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One thing that I clearly underestimated in Monday's Prince Fielder piece was the Marlins' interest in making another big splash following the signing of Jose Reyes to a six-year, $106 million deal. In that I'm not alone; nearly everyone in the industry appears to be surprised that the Marlins have ramped up their pursuit of Albert Pujols. Multiple sources have them offering the slugging first baseman a 10-year deal in excess of $200 million, one that is said to trump the offer the Cardinals made last winter. Apparently, the team even thinks this is practically a done deal, though the Cardinals will get another turn at bat.

Still, I'm wary of how this all goes down for the Fish. The new ballpark is long overdue relative to the competition in terms of providing the team with a quality baseball-only facility, but it's fair to wonder how quickly fans will forgive Jeffrey Loria for the way he's run the franchise in the past. The Marlins have ranked last in the NL in attendance for six straight seasons, and have risen above 15th only once since the end of the 1998 season. That was 2004, when the warm afterglow of their second world championship lifted them all the way to 14th. Those poor showings at the gate weren't a reaction to a continuously crappy product; the team has four finishes above .500 since 2003, and no more than two losing seasons in a row.

Those attendance rankings were more of a reaction to the minimal payrolls and continued transience of the roster, which not only was a problem in and of itself, but became a bigger thing once evidence surfaced that revenue-sharing had helped them turn a tidy profit. The situation is now even higher up the Defcon scale given the launch of a Securities and Exchange Commission investigation into the sweetheart stadium deal the team received at taxpayer expense. You don't overcome all of that in one winter or even two, even by committing over $300 million in superstar contracts, to say nothing of the fact that once the heat is on with regards to this investigation, the crisis could compare to those the Mets and Dodgers have been forced to weather due to the Madoff and McCourt fiascos. Which means another fire sale, something with which this fan base is all too familiar.

So there's that, and that's without accounting for the honeymoon effect produced by new stadiums—fans flock to them in the first year or so, but unless a team can sustain some level of contention, the effect soon wears off. Once the Marlins' payroll passes $100 million, contention is imperative. Look no further than what's happening to the last long-suffering team to get a new ballpark, the Twins, who went from a $65 million Opening Day payroll in 2009, the last year of the Metrodome, to $98 million in 2010 when Target Field opened, to $113 million last year after Joe Mauer's extension kicked in. Thanks to bad planning and myriad injuries, they stumbled into 99-loss ignominy and a last-place finish last year, and so this winter, they're paring back to around $100 million, with the commitments to Mauer and poor Justin Morneau quickly becoming a burden, and next year's team anything but the favorite in a division that has the Indians and Royals on the rise. 

Reyes' signing has already created another problem with regards to Hanley Ramirez's public ambivalence about a position switch. The various wars between team president David Samson and Logan Morrison, or between Jeff Conine and Hanley Ramirez, had already created the impression of ongoing organizational disharmony, which does the organization's reputation for player transience no favors. Coming off a terrible season (.243/.333/.379, 0.5 WARP)and owed $46.5 million over the next three years, Ramirez can't be made to disappear easily or without some expense, and the potential for further drama seems high. New manager Ozzie Guillen is probably not the ideal prescription for that situation, but it's now part of his job.

If you can suspend disbelief long enough to assume that the Marlins solve the Ramirez problem and land Pujols—and I take no legal responsibility for the intake of any substance required to get to that point—and wave off any notion of decline from new closer Heath Bell, whose three-year, $27 million deal started this deluge, there's still the small matter of whether the team has enough starting pitching to contend in 2012. Ace Josh Johnson threw just 60 1/3 innings last year due to shoulder inflammation, and has reached 30 starts exactly once in six seasons, not including his 2005 cup of coffee. Ricky Nolasco and Anibal Sanchez are credible mid-rotation guys who provided over 400 innings of solid work between them last year, though the former's ERA has now failed to match his stats for three straight years due to a .327 BABIP, long enough to make it clear that he's probably not going to evolve into somebody more interesting. Javier Vazquez rose from the dead midway through the season—a 7.09 ERA through his first 13 starts, a 1.92 mark through his next 19—and threw 192 2/3 innings of quality work that must also be replaced given that he's a free agent who is leaning toward retirement. Chris Volstad and Brad Hand both look like fifth starters at best, and there's nothing special on the horizon, prospect-wise. So there's a clear need for another frontliner, and that's in addition to whatever luck it takes in the health department to get around 600 innings out of Johnson, Nolasco, and Sanchez. Signing Pujols would presumably make Gaby Sanchez into a trade chip, but he's 27 years old and produced 2.9 WARP in two years, so he's not going to bring back a number-two starter in a deal. As I'm writing this, Fox's Ken Rosenthal suggests that Loria is not ruling out signing C.J. Wilson as well as Pujols, which ought to be enough to launch a Drug Enforcement Agency investigation into what the hell everyone is smoking. A quick and dirty estimate puts Reyes, Pujols, and Wilson alone at $55-60 million a year over however many years the lefty's deal would wind up being, with Bell adding another $9 million per year for the first three.

So, I just don't see how all of this can happen, or can hold together for long even if it does. New ballpark or no, the current regime's penchant for creating internal disharmony between management and players is still relevant, as is the Marlins' history in blowing themselves up. Note that Reyes did not receive a no-trade clause, and that Samson has declared that none of the new Fish in the pond will receive one, Pujols included. Still, the very fact that it's the nouveau riche throwing their money around instead of the old wealth of the Yankees and Red Sox makes for a very different Winter Meetings than we've been used to.

Jay Jaffe is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jay's other articles. You can contact Jay by clicking here

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